Shaheed Mangal Pandey
By VN Gopalakrishnan
Mangal Pandey is remembered as the first freedom fighter and martyr who woke up the Indian masses to fight for the nation. He gave a sparkle to the First War of Indian Independence. But the British termed it as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 as it was a mass revolt of Indian soldiers in the British Army. He is popularly named Shaheed Mangal Pandey because Shaheed means martyr. Pandey joined the 34th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) of the British East India Company at the age of 22.
The main reason for the Sepoy Mutiny was the introduction of Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Musket (P-53). The War Department of the British Army used this in the Crimean War which was proved effective at a range of 50 to 300 yards. The 19th BNI Regiment of the British Army was charged with testing the new cartridges on February 26, 1857. But there was a widespread rumour that the cartridge was greased by cow or pig fat, which was offensive to Hindu as well as Muslim soldiers. To load the rifle, the sepoy had to first bite off the rear of the cartridge to pour the gunpowder into the rifle’s muzzle.
Since cows are sacred to Hindus and pigs are strictly forbidden to Muslims, the Indian sepoys could have reservations about the cartridges. The British Army constituted 96 per cent of Indians and hence both the Hindus and the Muslims refused to accept these cartridges. The general opinion was that the British had deliberately done this to hurt the sentiments of Indian soldiers. But right up to the Mutiny, the new rifles had not been issued to them, and the cartridges in the magazine of the Regiment were free of grease as they had been through the preceding half century.
Commandant Wheeler of the 34th BNI was known as a zealous Christian preacher. The wife of Captain William Halliday of the 56th BNI had the Bible printed in Urdu and Nagri and distributed among the sepoys thereby raising suspicions among them that the British were intent on converting them to Christianity. Another rumour was that the British had adulterated the wheat flour distributed to the sepoys with ground bone-dust of bullocks.
Coupled with low pay, the sepoys were also dissatisfied with the army life. The annexation of Oudh had another implication for sepoys in the Bengal Army as a significant portion of them came from Oudh. Before the annexation, the sepoys had the right to petition the British Resident at Lucknow for justice. As a result of the annexation, they lost that right. Doctrine of Lapse, forcible introduction of the British system of education and social reforms that did not go down well with the higher castes in India precipitated in the rebellion.
Mangal Pandey’s name got imprinted into the pages of the Indian history after he attacked his senior British officers. It was reported that Mangal Pandey was pacing in front of the Regiment’s guard room on the parade round armed with a loaded musket, calling upon the men to rebel and threatening to shoot the first European he set his eyes on. It was then that another sepoy, Shaikh Paltu intervened and tried to restrain Pandey from killing them even as he tried to reload his musket. Major Hewson, the British Sergeant ordered a Jamedar in command of the troop to arrest Pandey but to this, the Jemadar reacted that he could not take on Pandey alone. Surrounded by guards and European officers, Pandey tried to commit suicide but he failed to do so. He was seriously wounded and was promptly arrested.
Following a court martial on April 6, 1857, he was sentenced to death by hanging at Barrackpore on April 8, 1857, 10 days earlier to prevent the regiment from harbouring ill-will against British officers. The British also believed that the news of Pandey’s death could spark more unrest. It appeared that Pandey had acted without first taking other sepoys into his confidence.
A Court of Enquiry was ordered which, after an investigation lasting nearly a month, recommended the disbanding of the 34th BNI Regiment on May 6, 1857 as a collective punishment. Shaikh Paltu was promoted on the spot to the post of Havaldar (native Sergeant) by General Hearsey, for his conduct during the incident. The 19th BNI were allowed to retain their uniforms and provided by the Government with an allowance to return home.
Mangal Pandey was born to a Bhumihar Brahmin family on July 19, 1827 in the Nagwa village in the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh. It is said that Pandey was a devout Hindu who practiced his religion diligently. There still exist families in this village who claim to be his descendents. A movie titled Mangal Pandey: The Rising was recently released. It is based on the life of Mangal Pandey and directed by Ketan Mehta. Aamir Khan plays the lead role of Mangal Pandey. His life was also the subject of a stage play titled The Roti Rebellion. To commemorate Mangal Pandey as a distinguished freedom fighter, the Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department has issued a postage stamp.